This celebration, which occurred in December in the countryside and March in the city, could not start until certain rituals had been completed. In Athens, for instance, a wooden statue of Dionysus would be taken from Eleutherai to the city. On the evening of its arrival, the statue would be moved to one of the god's sanctuaries where a bull would be killed in his honor. The performance of a dithyramb, a song dedicated to Dionysus, might have taken place at this time as well.
Members of the Dionysiac cult always told of the myths centered around their god by singing and dancing out their stories together as a chorus. Always, that is, until one day ( about 2,500 years ago) in the sixth century BC, when a man named Thespis, a Dionysian priest, stepped out of the chorus and took on the role of an actor. Thespis acted out a Dionysiac myth through spoken dialogue rather than a song, creating Greek tragedy. He is considered to be the first actor and the first playwright.
After this new form of performance had been introduced to the general public, it quickly gained popularity. Its popularity lead Pisistratus, an Athenian tyrant, to construct a theater, for the performance of tragedy, in Dionysus' honor. Under Pisistratus' rule, tragedy turned into a competition for the best play in 538 BC. Soon thereafter, these theatrical performances gained new importance and meaning, and in 534 BC the first festival of Dionysus was instituted. The first recorded victory at the Dionysian Festival occurred that same year when Thespis, also a playwright, won the event. The Dionysian festival represented not only an opportunity for the ancient Greeks to celebrate Dionysus, but it also provided yet another opportunity for them to participate in competition.
Once tragedy had become an established art form, theater competition quickly expanded to include satyr plays and comedy. Tragedy appeared at the Dionysian Festival for the first time in 534 BC (as noted above), followed by the satyr play in approximately 500 BC, and comedy in 486 BC. Unfortunately, the only Greek plays to have survived date from 490 to 300 BC, a fairly short time period. The majority of tragic plays, we are unsure of who wrote certain ones, are said to have been written by Aeschylus (525-426 BC), Sophocles (496-406 BC), and Euripides (485-406 BC), while the comedies are attributed to Aristophanes (450-385 BC) and Menander (342-290 BC). Although most of their plays have been lost or destroyed, we have been left with a fairly good impression of their individual styles. Their writings have also provided us with valuable information concerning the performance and subject matter of Greek plays.
Tragedies were based largely on the myths or stories of the old narrative epic poems, of which only two main ones, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both written by Homer, survive. These plays were performed by a chorus of twelve members, until the 5th century B.C. when the number was expanded to fifteen, and a maximum of three male actors (women were not allowed on stage). In order to help the audience figure out who the performers were supposed to represent, costumes and masks were used. Costumes were generally designed to show the character's social status or gender, while masks might depict emotions or age. Masks, often made of wood or cork, helped to make the actor's voice louder as well. Unfortunately, they also completely covered the actor's facial expressions. This setback forced performers of tragedy to depend on their gestures and voice to convey a message. When a large, noisy audience was at the performance, this proved to be an extremely difficult task.
The satyr play was written by the same playwrights who wrote tragedy. The characters in these wild plays, the satyrs (half human, half bestial creatures), were disciples of the god Dionysus. People trying to look like them for festivities and performances dressed in full body suits with pieces of wool attached to their bodies. It is not known how many people were in the chorus in these plays. However, we do know that it was conducted by an older satyr called the Papposilenos. Despite our lack of knowledge in this area, because no satyr plays have survived, we do know that the genre's blend of crude humor and lively action made it a crowd favorite.
Comedy was an extremely popular form of performance as well. The first comedic competition at the Dionysian festival took place in 486 B.C. and was won by the playwright Chionides. At first these plays focused mainly on light hearted subjects. With the rise of democracy, however, serious political issues began to be satirized. Comedic playwrights increasingly criticized the existing political system while promoting new ideas.
Originally, most ancient Greek plays were not published. Playwrights wrote them with the intention of them being seen and heard, not read. The plays were later published, but originally they usually had to be memorized. This method of preserving material without writing it down is called oral tradition.
All of the actors and playwrights were men, because women were not allowed to participate. The official title for the playwrights in the City Dionysia festival records was didaskalos, which means "teacher" or "trainer", given to the playwrights because originally they functioned simply as the trainers of the chorus. Later, with the introduction of solo actors into plays, the didaskalos functioned as the writer, the composer, the choreographer, and the director.
Men who hoped to present a play at the festival had to "apply for a chorus" (meaning they needed to seek acceptance as one of the competing three tragedians or as one of the three to five comic writers) to the archon, who was a magistrate chosen annually. By what criterion the decision was made is unknown. Playwrights who were accepted as contestants were then assigned a producer, or choregos, who was a wealthy private citizen willing to fund the training and costume of the chorus, and a chorus including some actors. It was a great honor for the producer if the play won at the Dionysian Festival. The state paid for the actors in the productions. After about six months of rehearsal, the playwright took his production to Athens, where it would be performed in celebration of Dionysus as part of the City Dionysia.
Although we know that
successful playwrights taking part in the competitive festivities of the
City Dionysia were awarded a prize, we do not know what the prize amounted
to. It is likely that the existence of a prize played only a small role in
motivating the ancient Greek playwrights to participate in the
competition, as evidence shows that the participants appear to have
belonged to the class of Athenians who could support themselves without
working, and whose extra time and funds allowed them to participate in
public life. More likely, it was the combination of the ancient Greeks'
competitive nature with their desire to honor their god, that drove them
to participate year after year in the theatrical competitions of the
festivals of Dionysus.
Introduced around the sixth century B.C.,
the dithyramb was a song dedicated to Dionysus. Early dithyrambs,
which generally depicted Greek legends, were improvised and their staging
was lively. In rural areas of Greece, members of the chorus went so
far as to dress themselves in goatskins and dance around in an attempt to
look like the animal. Eventually, the dithyramb began to take on a
more sophisticated quality and its presentation grew increasingly serious.
This movement helped to develop Greek tragedy.
The earliest of these, Aeschylus, lived from 525 to 456 BC, during which time he composed about eighty plays, including both satyrs and tragedies. His play "Persians", written in 472 BC, is the oldest surviving play. According to Aristotle, Aeschylus was responsible for introducing a second actor into the format of the theater, resulting in dialogue that could develop much more freely. Up until that point, there had always been only one actor, and therefore the only spoken dialogue took place between a representative of the chorus, a group of dancing singers who formed the core of the dramatic performance, and the actor. Aeschylus was also responsible for the improvement of the theater by introducing a definite actor's apparel. This apparel included the three essentials of the tragic costume - the mask, the long-sleeved robe, and the tall buskins (high boots with very thick soles).
Sophocles, who lived from 496 to 406 B.C., wrote about one hundred and twenty dramas, seven of which have survived. Sophocles was an extremely successful man, who learned much from both his predecessor Aeschylus and his successor Euripides. The most famous of his works is Oedipus the King, which was considered by Aristotle to be the model drama, and Oedipus the model hero. Sophocles was responsible for the invention of skenographia, or scene painting, therefore becoming the first playwright to put a defined background behind the actors in his plays. Sophocles was also responsible for the addition of a third speaking character into the format of theatrical productions.
Euripides lived between 484 and 406 BC, during which time he wrote about ninety plays, eighteen of which still survive, including seventeen tragedies and one satyr play. Euripides was educated as a free thinker, and as a result, he approached the traditional myths as raw material that he could change and shape as he pleased. However, in order to keep within the lines of the established features of the myths, it became necessary for Euripides to use the idea of supernatural intervention in his plays, resulting in scenic changes. Mechanical devices had to be invented that allowed the gods to appear and disappear quickly.
Aristophanes, a comic writer who lived between 450 and 385 BC, composed about forty plays in his lifetime. His plays were all comedies, usually addressing very serious political and social issues in direct and crude ways, which, like much of today's comedy, is what made them funny for the audience to watch. Many comedies would go as far as mocking members of the audience or making personal attacks upon contemporary political personalities.
Approximately at the time of Alexander the Great, about 330 BC, a new type of comedy replaced the traditional type. It was during that period that Menander, who lived from 342 to 290 BC, wrote over one hundred comedies. The new style of comedy focused on the humor that was found in Athenians' daily life, rather than concentrating on political issues. This change was partially due to the fact that freedom of speech, which Aristophanes had taken advantage of so well in his comedy, was no longer a right under the domination of Macedonia. Therefore, during this late period in Greek theater, the everyday joys, sorrows, manners, and peculiarities of individual citizens took center stage in Menander's comedies.
Because no complete structures of Greek theaters remain intact, most of the information that we have about the structures come from other sources, although some does come from the ruins of the theaters themselves. Much of what we know comes from literary evidence, including the works of Vitruvius, a Roman architect of the first century AD who wrote a book about architectural styles, as well as from the texts of the plays that were performed in the structures. However, there are no stage directions written into Greek plays, and therefore we have very little evidence of what they would have needed to house the performances. Because our sources of information about Greek theaters are so limited, it is best to consider our reconstructions of them as only theory rather than fact.
Greek theaters can be grouped into three categories: Athenian, Hellenistic, and Graeco-Roman. With each of these different types came slight variations in the structure of the performance spaces, as well as in the specifics of the style of the performances.
Athenian theater, which took place mainly during the 5th century BC, was very much focused on religion. The plays had a chorus of up to 50 people, who performed the plays in verse accompanied by music. The performance space was a simple circular space, or orchestra, where the chorus danced and sang. The orchestra, which had an average diameter of 78 feet, was situated on a flattened terrace at the foot of a hill, the slope of which produced a natural theatron, or "watching place". Later, the term "theater" came to be applied to the whole area, including the theatron, the orchestra, and the skene, or scenery.The theaters were originally built on a very large scale to accommodate the large number of people on stage, as well as the large number of people in the audience, up to fourteen thousand. Mathematics played a large role in the construction of these theaters, as their designers had to able to create acoustics in them such that the actors' voices could be heard throughout the theater, including the very top row of seats. Many people believe that the ancient Greeks had a better understanding of the science behind acoustics then we do today, as even with the invention of microphones, there are very few modern large theaters that have truly good acoustics. The first seats in Greek theaters (other than just sitting on the ground) were wooden, but around 499 BC the practice of inlaying stone blocks into the side of the hill to create permanent, stable seating became more common. In 465 BC, the playwrights began using a backdrop or scenic wall, which hung or stood behind the orchestra, which also served as an area where actors could change their costumes. It was known as the skene. In 425 BC a stone scene wall, called a paraskenia, became a common supplement to skenes in the theaters. A paraskenia was a long wall with projecting sides, which may have had doorways for entrances and exits. Just behind the paraskenia was the proskenion. The proskenion was columned, and was similar to the modern day proscenium. Today's proscenium is the what separates the audience from the stage. It is the frame around the stage that makes it look like the action is taking place in a picture frame. Greek theaters also had entrances for the audience called parodoi. The paradoi (plural of parados) were tall arches that came out from the sides of the stage, through which the audience entered. By the end of the 5th century BC, around the time of the Peloponnesian War, the skene, the back wall, was two stories high. The upper story was called the episkenion. Some theaters also had a raised speaking place on the orchestra called the logeion.
Hellenistic theater took place during the 4th century and onward, during roughly the same time period as the conquests of Alexander the Great. The hellenistic theater included the same basic parts as the classical theaters: the orchestra, the parados, and the skene. Most of the theaters of this time period share a similar symmetrical layout. Columns ranging from 13 to 8 feet in height were placed next to the skene. They were typically enclosed by the paraskene. There were painted boards located behind the columns called pinakes. In summary, the Hellenistic style theaters included a circular orchestra, an auditorium, pillars, a skene divided into rooms, and a proskene with three doors.
When Greek civilization was coming to an end, Roman ideas were spreading through Greece and therefore Graeco-Roman theater soon evolved. This type of theater was distinctly different from the earlier types, as it incorporated the ideas of the Romans into the Greek theater, resulting in some specific changes in the design as well as in the plays themselves. Graeco-Roman theaters had larger audience areas, and the bottom level of seats was lowered to the same level as the orchestra. Although designers of Graeco-Roman theaters disposed of the columnsto create a a plainer stage area, the background and front edge of the orchestra became elaborate and decorative. Designers began putting more of their energy into making the permanent structure more decorative, and less into the sets made for each play. The Graeco-Roman period also saw the invention of some new set machinery. To make the plays most effective, the actors who played the parts of the Gods had to arrive and leave in a godly fashion, and the invention of the crane allowed them to be flown in and out in a way that was fitting to the role. They also began using rolling platforms, most commonly used for bringing in dead bodies onto the stage, as no violence ever took place on stage. This device was called the ekkuklema. There were also a lot of simple inventions in addition, such as trap doors for the actors to enter and exit from. Graeco-Roman plays consisted mostly of comedy, as opposed to classical and Hellenistic theater which was mostly tragedy.
Can you match the parts of the theater with
the Greek names?
The individuals who judged plays were Athenian citizens appointed as judges whose favor could often be swayed by audience response. The audience was extremely large. At one time the Dionysian theater held up to 14,000 people, and as a result the audience was very influential. If the people disliked what was being presented to them they might interrupt it by mocking the actors, yelling, or throwing food. The spectators might also beat the wooden benches they were sitting on with their hands. With this embarrassing possibility in mind, many playwrights tried to win over their audience through flattery and the distribution of small gifts.
Although it was difficult to
gain audience support at times, it may have been an easier task than
gaining the people's attention. The large crowds were extremely loud
and probably did not notice when an actor stepped up on stage. In
order to get the spectators quieted down and ready for a performance, the
actors had to do something interesting and outrageous. For example,
a comedic performer might tell jokes or tease people in the audience.
If there was more than one performer they might get the audience's
attention through horseplay (ie. yelling, fake fighting, etc.).
Before a dramatic performance a prologue might be given by the playwright
that explained the legend he was depicting. The style of the opening
depended largely upon the type of the play to be performed.